Maxie Dunnam ~ Recovering Our First Language

Somewhere along the way I read of one who was reflecting on the language introduced by this computer age. He said,

“I remember when… a program was a TV show, an application was for employment, ram was the cousin of a goat, a gig was a job for the night, a keyboard was a piano, memory was something you lost with age, a CD was a bank account, a hard drive was a long trip on the road, a mouse pad was where a mouse lived, a web was a spider’s home and a virus was the flu.”

We have a whole new technological vocabulary. I’m trying to be technologically literate, but my big concern is that in this kind of technological world, and a world lost in moral and ethical relativism, language may be more important than ever. As Christians, and especially as those whose primary vocation is to communicate the Gospel, we need to pay attention to our “first language.”

There is a dark and powerful passage in Morris West’s book The Devil’s Advocate that challenges us here. Monsignor Meredith has grown weary in the church; his life has become institutionalized, his faith reduced to an “intellectual conception, an arid assent of the will.” Yet now his words have struck a responsive chord in the Bishop; they have borne out his own feelings about the difficulty of true communication, here specifically between the church and the laity. The Bishop speaks:

“The root of …[the problem], I think, is this: [as priests] we …have a rhetoric of our own, which, like the rhetoric of the politician says much and conveys little. But we are not politicians. We are teachers – teachers of truth which we claim to be essential to man’s salvation. Yet how do we preach it? We talk roundly of faith and hope as if we were making a fetishist’s incantation. What is faith? A blind leap into the hands of God. An inspired act of will which is our only answer to the terrible mystery of where we came from and where we are going. What is hope? A child’s trust in the hand that will lead it out of the terrors that reach from the dark. We preach love and fidelity, as if these were teacup tales – and not bodies writhing on a bed and hot words in dark places, and souls tormented by loneliness and driven to the momentary communion of a kiss. We preach charity and compassion but rarely say what they mean – hands dabbling in sick room messes, wiping infection from syphilitic sores. We talk to the people every Sunday, but our words do not reach them, because we have forgotten our mother tongue.”

 Let that sink in: “We talk to the people… but our words do not reach them because we have forgotten our mother tongue.”

The mother tongue, our “first language,”  is a language of confidence in the presence of the Holy Spirit; a language of certainty about the power of the gospel to transform.

 When will we learn that academic rigor alone will not win the world for Christ? Proclamation and teaching are not enough. Correct doctrine will not do it. The old language, which we need to make new, is the language lived and preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Confessing Movement in the United Methodist Church, we are seeking a renewal of our confession of Orthodox Christianity, a reinvigoration of doctrine. We are contending for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. I believe we are struggling for the soul of the church. But I know it’s not just a doctrinal struggle.

Recently in my reading in Revelation, it hit me hard: only two of the seven churches of Revelation (Pergamum and Thyatira) were scolded for false doctrine. They had lost their first love. But the glorified Christ talked most about fervency, about closeness to the Lord, about overcoming, about having ears to hear, about watching and praying, about repentance, about his triumphant return, about the new Jerusalem, about our sitting with him on the throne of his glory.

 So the mother tongue, our “first language”, is a language of confidence in the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a language of certainty about the power of the gospel to transform. And overarching it all is a language of relationship that has its beginning, its substance, and its ending in love. The incarnation did not cease with Jesus when the word became flesh. The incarnation must go on and on with us. What Christ has been and done for us we must be and do for others.



  1. Good points!

  2. The mother tongue, our “first language,” is a language of confidence in the presence of the Holy Spirit; a language of certainty about the power of the gospel to transform.

    You are right. but problem is, the number of people who express confidence in the gospel and Holy Spirit are scarcer than the proverbial hen’s teeth. I was 55 years old and been a good church-going Methodist all my life before I encountered a pastor who talked about loving God and talked as if God through the Holy Spirit was a positive verb in his life. For the first time, I finally understood, without a doubt that there was more to Christianity than going to church and supporting its ministries. I wanted to know the God that pastor knew; but even he did not talk about the God he knew. Ultimately I had to distance myself from all things church to discover a triune God of holy love who is definitely way more verb than noun; an unfathomable God of mystery who loves even me more than I can ever think about loving myself; whereas we, including me, are a rebellious lot who are incurable control freaks. My jumping off point was the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it out of the Calvinist camp. But what sealed the deal was John Wesley himself who expressed absolute confidence that God wanted me, even me, and wiped out all my feeble excuses with his stunning logic:

    You ungodly one who hears or reads
    these words…I charge you before God, the judge of all, go straight unto him
    with all your ungodliness. Take heed you destroy not your own soul by pleading
    your righteousness…
    Who are you that now sees and feels both
    your inward and outward ungodliness; You are the man for me! I want you for my
    Lord. I challenge you for a child of God by faith. The Lord has need of
    you. You who feels you are just fit for hell are just fit to advance his glory:
    the glory of his free grace, justifying the ungodly and him that works not. O
    come quickly. Believe in the Lord Jesus and you, even you, are
    reconciled to God. John Wesley, “Justification by Faith”

    God offers you one of the greatest mercies this side of
    heaven and commands you to accept it. Why do you not accept this mercy in
    obedience to his command? What can God do for us further if we refuse his mercy
    because we are unworthy of it? John Wesley from his sermon on the Lord’s Supper

    Wesley spoke a tremendous language of love. But that love was born out of doctrine: an understanding of who God is and who we are. It shaped his relationship with God and with others. That is why at some point we as United Methodists have to talk doctrine. A perusal of gives a glimpse of the doctrinal diversity that exists within the UMC; very little of it corresponds to the basic orthodox Christianity I so recently learned about. And not only is the doctrinal diversity great, there is no consensus as to what role the church needs to play in society (Rev. Jeremy Smith’s Hacking Christianity blog is a stunning example; especially the part called Geek Gospel).

    People can not speak the language of love without first understanding and accepting God’s love for them. I now call the gospel the best kept secret of the United Methodist Church; at best it is doled out in erratic dribs, drabs and dribbles. The Heidelberg and the book about it, Body & Soul, spoke of God’s love in a way that took me from feeling like Christianity was rocket science to finally understanding it is simply unfathomable; it was like a high intensity light had suddenly been switched on; it left me wishing that somebody had had that conversation with me a long time ago. Nothing has been the same since.

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